The saying “see Naples and die” means you’ll be utterly blown away when you bear witness to the beauty of Naples, but I suspect that the “see” in the phrase could be replaced with the word “taste”, because aside from the wonderful plates of food, there is very little picturesque beauty worth raving about in Naples. That said a pizza marinara (Neapolitan pizza topped simply with tomato, garlic, basil and oregano) is in itself, a work of art.
Pizza is one of the world’s most popular dishes yet we rarely pay homage to its birthplace, Naples. The hideous travesties topped with cheese from spray cans and pieces of chicken tikka we have come to recognize as pizzas are outlawed in Naples by the gastronomic accreditation agency “Vera”. The renowned pizza marinara (so named because it was the dish of poor fishermen) is an epicurean gem that must be unearthed from the darkest depths of the chaotic city to be tasted in its purest form. I set out to do just that during a 2-day stopover in Naples en route to Sicily.
Traipsing over the uneven cobbles of Naples’ myriad back streets, wary of being hit by young men hurtling recklessly on Piaggio scooters, I bravely navigated the lively maze of the old town, determined to find the apotheosis of the iconic Italian foodstuff. It was around 1:30pm and to my surprise, most of the pizzerias were closing for the afternoon and seemingly every attempt to enter one was rebuffed by a churlish “Chiuso” from all the Neapolitan waiters I encountered. My mission seemed doomed to fail and at about 3pm I thought about relinquishing the fatuous idea and instead opting for a snack at the local rosticceria or Italian deli counter.
Weary and disheartened, I came across a bleak set of tables and chairs next to a wall caked with layers of graffiti and decided to take a seat. A gruff, mustachioed waiter came out from the adjacent restaurant and twisted his nose with disdain on realizing I was British. “We are closing now, so hurry with your order”, he exclaimed. My hopes of finding the ethereal pizza marinara were in tatters and I was genuinely expecting the crotchety waiter to serve me the leftovers of his dog’s dinner. However, all the bad omens turned out to be a blessing in disguise as served up before me was what I had been dreaming of: a delectably thin pizza base christened with sieved San Marzano tomatoes (a highly sought-after variety grown in the ash of Vesuvius) garnished simply with a few basil leaves, some garlic and a drizzle of olive oil. My first mouthful was a culinary epiphany that elicited a giddy rush of contentment and a gleeful smile. I knew from that moment on that my life had been changed forever and if were to have died in Naples I would have done so having had a little taster of heaven before I’d even got there.